In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act which designated Mount Zirkel as a wilderness area. Later additions increased the area adding the Watershed Creek as well as part of the Encampment River. Named after German geologist Ferdinand Zirkel, this 159,935-acre area of natural beauty is protected not just for the low-elevation forests, 70 glacial lakes, and numerous rivers that flow from them, but also because of the diverse ecological systems for which the wilderness offers a natural habitat. Apart from the fascinating scenery and wildlife, hikers would be thrilled to know that 155 miles of trails are waiting for them to explore and enjoy.
About 30 minutes north of Steamboat, Slavonia Trailhead starts the winding trail into the heart of Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Around a quarter mile into your hike, you’ll come across a junction that takes you up the Gold Creek Lake Trail. You can take that trail because the elevation is gentle. On your way, you’ll witness the devastation caused by a windstorm that hit the area in 1997 and took down about four million trees. Before you reach Gold Creek Lake you’ll pass a waterfall about 35-feet high that is worth taking a stop and some pictures. Once you reach the lake, the trail will take you around the northern and western shores. Your next stop will be at the meadow near the Ute Pass. This is another good place to stop and take a break because once you hit the Gilpin Lake Trail, it turns into a steep climb all the way to the top of Gilpin Ridge.
Rainbow Lake Trail
On the other side of Rabbit Ears Pass towards Walden, this trail which starts from the Rainbow Lake trailhead is wide enough for an ATV to pass thanks in part to the many pines killed by beetles. But once the trail cuts into Mount Zirkel Wilderness it narrows down and follows a ridgeline. As you gain elevation keep an eye to the south for the Rabbit Ears, a popular rock formation. You’ll also notice that the trail neatly cuts across a forest where aspen trees are on one side and conifers are on the other like two teams ready to charge. Once you reach the Rainbow Lake you’ll have the choice either to leave the trail to explore the lake or stick to the trail. At Norris Creek, the trail becomes more challenging as you head to the Slide Lake.
More Trailheads in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area
Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area has about nine trailheads that criss-cross it, offering different levels of challenge to the hiker. Other notable trailheads include Beaver Creek Trailhead, Buffalo Pass Trailhead, Buffalo Ridge Trailhead, and Mad Creek Trailhead. Make sure to study the map of the trail and its conditions before you head there.